Shrimp gumbo and beef tamales. Chicken spaghetti and chitterlings. Chapati bread and homemade biscuits. If my math’s right, PB&Js by the millions.
Texans from across the state emerged from a surreal, frozen week with stories of survival—including how they managed to feed themselves, and what meals they cobbled together, in the midst of a crisis. To paint a picture of the week in food—and perhaps to offer some solidarity with fellow Texans who ate cold beans straight out of the can—I asked people what (and how) they ate during last week’s winter storm. The responses, gathered by phone, email, and social media DM, were by turns funny, touching, predictably mundane, and utterly Texan. Brian, an elementary school principal from Lee County, “channeled his inner caveman” (and Forrest Gump’s Bubba, with his one-food mantra), preparing smoked brisket, brisket stew, and brisket chili. A’Nease, an insurance specialist in Frisco, “ate like trash,” abandoning her low-carb lifestyle for pastas, breads, and fried Chick-fil-A nuggets. On her ranch in San Antonio, Rita gathered eggs from still-laying hens and kept the baby chicks alive and warm in a diesel truck she left running for days. She grilled sausages on an open fire and drank Mexican hot chocolate.
Not all Texans were lucky enough to have even these new, disaster-induced combinations of food. Many experienced severe food insecurity throughout the cold snap, faced with empty shelves at home and in stores. During a news conference last Thursday, Governor Abbott urged people not to hoard food: “There are others who need access to food, and we are working with local as well as some state-based agencies to make sure that we will be providing that.” Organizations like Feeding Texas are accepting donations to support food banks, and local mutual-aid groups have stepped up to help neighbors in need. Moving forward, efforts are being made to strengthen the food supply chain in emergency situations and winterize critical infrastructure. For now, every Texan has a new story about what meals he or she managed to create during the storm, and many people are still struggling to put food on the table. Below, see how we fared during an icy disaster.
Whatever I Could Find
In Dallas, DeAnna, age 25, and her friends cleared out the fridge in a matter of days. “Veggies, soups, and LOTS of PB&Js.” The pantry didn’t last long either. “One night I had like six Cheetos for dinner because there wasn’t enough food for everyone. I was so over it.”
Running low on food, some braved icy roads and waited in long lines at grocery stores and fast food restaurants, only to trudge home empty-handed or short on the proverbial essentials like milk, bread, and eggs. “We shopped at Walmart too late after the storm had already started, and there was very little food left,” said Rhonda, 51, of Little Elm. “We ate canned red beans, rice, quick-cook foods, and cereal.” From Lubbock to Beaumont, Whataburgers and Waffle Houses were inundated with customers and struggling to remain open as water reduced to a trickle. “I’ve never seen lines that long,” said Loe, a real estate developer in Dallas. “Forty to fifty cars at many drive-throughs, spilling out into the streets all over town.”
College students relied on vending machines and microwaves amid rolling blackouts. Mollie, a sophomore at UT-Austin, described a revelrous campus with classes canceled for the week: “My roommate stole bottled water from one of the frat houses. People basically scrounged and partied.” Maddie, a freshman at Baylor, said there was a mad rush for food (premade sandwiches, beef jerky, popcorn, mac and cheese) at the dining halls, which operated under limited hours. Most students at Baylor were caught off guard by the storm, but, like their counterparts ninety minutes down Interstate 35, they made the best of the situation. “Definitely lots of day drinking,” Maddie said, “but also plenty of people just enjoying the snow—sledding and tubing down hills”
Texans with dietary restrictions struggled to maintain strict regimens. Billy, a pastor from a Houston suburb, told me about his college-aged daughter, who has celiac disease. When she ran out of gluten-free options in her dorm, her uncle, who lives nearby, undertook a “rescue mission” to get her home. In Austin, Eileen—a writer originally from Troyes, France—said it was difficult for her young son, who is severely autistic, to go without his favorite foods. They cuddled under blankets and ate pasta and granola bars “pretty much all week.”
Nekia, a full-time student and single mom living in North Richland Hills, used food stamps to buy what she could find at a nearby Family Dollar. When she returned home from the store, a pipe had burst and her apartment had flooded. The kitchen, living room, and dining room were severely damaged. For a while, she ate cereal and chips in the upstairs bedroom, the only area with heat. Later, volunteers dropped off fresh veggies, beans, rice, and packets of oatmeal. “I’m just going day by day,” Nekia said. “I haven’t gotten anything fixed, but I did apply for help from FEMA, so hopefully that comes through.”
Stocked and Loaded
Others were fortunate to have well-stocked fridges, freezers, and pantries when the icy weather arrived.
Praveen, 37, moved to Austin from Chennai, India, a coastal city on the Bay of Bengal. “Chennai went through a historic flood in 2015, leaving us without food, power, or water for a week. So we anticipated the worst here.” As the winter storm approached, Praveen purchased and prepared food in bulk for his family and another family staying with them in their small apartment. To feed the group of seven, he made dozens of chapatis (unleavened flatbreads), chicken biryani, and various chutneys. The adults ate one meal a day. The children had powdered milk and stayed warm bundled up in layers of clothes.
In Allen, Josh, 41, cooked up warm and cheesy quesadillas he nicknamed Texas Blizzardillas. Just before the storm hit, he waited in a long line to fill up multiple tanks of propane, which came in handy when he was without power or available natural gas. Josh used an outdoor griddle to cook food and boil water for coffee. In the afternoons, he and his wife hung out at their church, which still had power and where she could work on the Wi-Fi.
Heather, a professional angler from Brookeland, grilled up some of the fifty-odd pounds of vacuum-sealed tuna she’d accumulated in her freezer. She was amazed by the conditions at the local lake. “In a span of three hours, the water on Lake Sam Rayburn went down from 55 to 29 degrees. The fishes’ body functions slow down at that temperature. From the surface, they look like trout-cicles.” During the coldest days, Heather left the lake and used her pickup truck to pull neighbors’ cars out of ditches.
In the Panhandle, Rachelle, a gardener, “didn’t suffer too much.” She always keeps plenty of food on hand, and, in her region, they’re prepared for and accustomed to long spans of below-freezing weather. While stuck at home, Rachelle avoided using the oven or doing laundry in order to conserve electricity. For dinner, she and her family enjoyed chicken and dumplings, like they always do.
Over a long and difficult week, people got creative, making ad-libbed dishes with whatever they had in the pantry. Some meals turned out great; Emily in Austin said a neighbor’s “mushroom and rice wrap was the best thing I’ve ever tasted.” Other attempts failed horribly, like Houston native Caroline’s attempt to combine old sausage with leftovers that she stored embedded in the snow in her backyard after her fridge went out.
Mario, USAF, in Dallas smoked an eleven-pound brisket. He and his wife and children each ate a few slices per day. It was “pretty clutch to have” whenever the freezer stopped working and the boil notice made doing dishes difficult. Misha, a mother of three in Snyder, cooked chicken spaghetti, red beans and rice, and a few different soups. Her freezer was full, and she was grateful not to have lost power or water.
In Panola, Phillip, age 30, snacked on trail mix, flavored pistachios, and chocolate chip cookies. “What else does a man need?” he said. Kelly, a retired member of the U.S. Coast Guard living near Galveston, was just as content with her pot of Creole-style fifteen-bean soup with salt pork, bacon, and garlic smoked sausage. “Warm and delish!”
Sue—an AP calculus teacher in San Juan who arrived only weeks ago from the Philippines—enjoyed for the first time some chili con carne, which had been prepared and dropped off by her school’s principal. For days, Sue had felt anxious about the frigid weather and a little homesick too. “In that moment, I saw and understood how kind and generous Texans are,” she said. Later, the assistant principal came by with a second care package containing candles, a lighter, a loaf of bread, and, of course, jars of peanut butter and jelly. Meanwhile, Ted, a U.S. senator, might’ve sipped on margaritas in Cancún before serving barbecue to first responders in Houston.